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Miss Conduct

How to avoid awkward introductions

Miss Conduct weighs in on when strangers say you’d “look prettier” with a grin. Plus, avoiding awkward intros.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

> I’m a female college student. For a few years now I’ve been getting stopped on the street by perfect strangers, all men, who enthusiastically tell me, “Smile!” Sometimes I’m told that I’d “look prettier” if I smiled. If I respond by saying something along the lines of “That doesn’t encourage me to smile,” I get angry cat meows, as if I’m being openly hostile. This, of course, only makes me feel that way. What on earth is the proper response in these situations?

L.J. / Ipswich

Respond however you like.

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I’d advise against profanity or abuse, as this disfigures your own soul, and these men aren’t worth it. Men who tell women to “smile” are unlikely to learn anything from what you say. This is cause for both despair and a certain freedom.

If a stranger calls out while you are still in motion, you can ignore him, but you say you are getting stopped on the street. (Boston etiquette doesn’t require stopping for everyone who greets you, in case you hadn’t realized.) If a stranger actually hails you down, as though he needed directions to tell you how to arrange your face, you are free to tell him how to arrange his.

Some options for your response:

“No.”

“Dance.”

“Make a duck face.”

“You first.” (He smiles.) “Nope.” (Keep walking.)

 This advice will raise some hackles — and if it’s against your beliefs or superstitions, then don’t do it — but I think it’s perfectly all right to respond to a stranger’s command to smile by lying about a misfortune: “I just had my dog put to sleep.” If anything will make the Smile Bullies rethink their ways, it would be that.

 Your problem will solve itself with time. The sort of men who feel entitled to order women to display joy usually do not even perceive the existence of females older than 40. Becoming invisible to sexists is one of the great secret delights of middle age.

> I am very good with names and faces. Often I run into a problem where people I have met will reintroduce themselves although I remember them. What do I do? Do I tell them we’ve already met and risk embarrassing them or just roll with the reintroduction and risk having a conversation we have already had?

J.L. / Arlington

This is kind of the opposite of a problem, isn’t it? This is like a superpower. But superpowers must be deployed discreetly — Spider-Man doesn’t shoot a web to nab a canape at a cocktail party — so roll with the reintroductions. If the person seems about to twig to the fact that you had met before, you can either graciously pretend to be the one who forgot or you can “remember” him or her during the conversation. (“Wait a minute, didn’t I meet at you at last summer’s barn raising?”)

How to use this superpower to your advantage? You can, of course, develop a reputation as a charming conversationalist by making small talk about topics you’ve already discovered your interlocutor is interested in. But the best thing would be to help close friends and especially your business partners and bosses look good. Be the person who can be relied upon to mutter “That’s Chris MacGuffin, CEO of MacGuffin Industries” into the boss’s ear as the business titan approaches.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP? Write to her at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.
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